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May Irwin and her Keeper

  It started out innocently enough with a cookbook. Then came the song sheets, photographs, playbills, postcards, not to mention cross-border bidding wars on eBay  - all over Clayton’s best  known celebrity: May Irwin. 

Karen Killian has been amassing May Irwin memorabilia since she purchased the vaudevillian’s vintage cookbook titled Home Cooking at  the Clayton Antique Show in 1993.  Killian, who manages Captain Spicer's Gallery near "May Irwin Road" in Clayton, has been collecting Irwin memorabilia of the Broadway star in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Irwin, the Canadian-born star, built a pink granite mansion on a Thousand Island she renamed after herself.

She should know. The former school teacher is considered one of the leading authorities in the Thousand Islands on May Irwin

May Irwin entertained the likes of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, played hostess to wealthy guests at her island near Clayton – now Club Island -  and even played softball there with Babe Ruth.

“She was a woman before her time in history and had an opinion about everything,” said Killian.

A performer who took to stages in London and New York City, Irwin is famously said to have given the Thousand Island dressing recipe to  George Boldt to take to the chef of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in the early 1900s.  And the native of Whitby Ont. is notorious for the first-ever cinematic kiss with actor John C. Rice in the 1886 film, The Kiss. It is often referred to as the “50- foot kiss” for the amount of film used. The film lasted only a few seconds and was taken from a scene in the Broadway play The Widow Jones. The silver screen smooch was considered scandalous at the time and publicly denounced by clergy, as well as critics, who were not particularly wooed either.

One lamented:  “Neither participant is physically attractive and the spectacle of their prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was hard to beat when only life size. Magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over is  absolutely disgusting.”

A waif she was not. But Irwin’s buxom figure was in vogue then and her talents as an actress, singer and vaudevillian made her a stage sensation.

Her beginnings were modest. One of America’s most beloved stars was born in Whitby Ont. as Ada May Campbell in 1862. Her mother nudged May and her younger sister, Flora, onto the stage after their father died when she was thirteen. The sisters appeared together in a singing act in Buffalo in 1874. By the fall of 1877, their careers had progressed and they were booked to appear at New York’s Metropolitan Theater at a popular music hall. May went on to perform in London and continued to entertain on Broadway until the early 1920s. 

Irwin’s life took a tragic turn in 1886 when her husband of eight years, Frederick Keller, died. They had two sons. It is said she first came to Clayton because her sister Flora was in ill health and needed a place away from the city to recover.

Irwin bought Club Island at the head of Grindstone Island in 1901 and promptly renamed it  - Irwin Isle. The grand nine-bedroom home featured a bowling alley and billiards room as well as a stained glass window featuring May as the Stature of Liberty. Irwin had her own railcar for commutes between the Clayton in the Thousand Islands and New York City.

The star came onto the Clayton scene during its golden era. At about the same time business barons were building Boldt Castle and Singer Castle (then known as The Towers) nearby on Heart Island and Dark Island respectively. Grand summer retreats including those of tobacco tycoon Charles G. Emery on Calumet Island and Remington typewriter magnate William O. Wyckoff on Carleton Island near Clayton, were becoming the norm in the Thousand Islands as the region became a playground for the rich and famous.

Steam yachts like The Magedoma, owned by Brockville’s millionaire owner of the Edwardian mansion called Fulford Place, George Fulford were floating fixtures on the St. Lawrence River. Irwin entertained other famous summer residents including artist Frederic Remington, composer Irving Berlin, and hotelier and Heart Island Island owner George Boldt at the estate with separate servants' quarters she called "May Irwin Inn". 

But tough financial times took a toll on the Thousand Islands Gilded Age. Like many other island estates that burned, faded or crumbled as property taxes rose after the Depression and World War II, the pink mansion is no longer standing. It was torn down at the end of WWII and taken by barge to the mainland and sold.

Town and village of Clayton historian Norman Wagner, 75, said he can still remember Irwin’s glamorous getaway rising from the island. “It was still standing when I was a child,” he said.“It’s just bewildering to me that they let some of those castles and summer homes go.”

Wagner said May’s name and story are generally well-known in Clayton. She performed at the Clayton Opera House and some of her memorabilia is kept at the Thousand Island Museum. Irwin marched with suffragettes and fought for animal rights.

At 45, Irwin married her manager Kurt Eisfeldt. “She was a very strong woman,” Wagner said, “She didn’t let people get in her way.”

A Canadian ancestor of Irwin’s enjoys sharing the same family tree  with the actress.  Colin Crozier, a retired historian for the city of Hamilton,  retraced his famous  Canadian relative’s roots in Clayton with his  wife Fern during a trip to the Thousand Islands in 1994. “It was a wonderful experience,” said the 91-year-old resident of Ancaster, Ontario. 

Crozier’s grandfather, William H. Campbell, was Irwin’s first cousin. “We found out May Irwin is the patron saint of Clayton.” She was a popular entertainer invited to sing in New York City’s  Central Park in 1935 to honor the year of the 100th anniversary Mark Twain’s birth. Irwin even gave President Wilson and his cabinet a  command performance before the First World War, suggesting she be appointed the nation’s “secretary of laughter.”

“She had quite the personality,” said Killian, displaying a photograph of Irwin in boxing gloves and a dress on her front lawn of Irwin Island surrounded  by a group of all male visitors dressed in dapper suits.  She appeared in plays as The Wench That Wears the Striped Gown, De Moonshine Ribber and She’s a Thoroughbred.

Irwin raised cattle and chickens on farms in the Clayton area and retired to one of them in her later years. “She often made the statement she liked animals more than people,”  Killian said.

She had racehorses (naming one after herself) and was more than at  ease with local wildlife.  “She’d go into town with a squirrel on her shoulder,” said Killian.  She wrote the lyrics to several songs, including Hot Tamale Alley.  Her signature numbers included The Bully Song and The Frog Song.  Irwin’s colorful cooking columns even graced “The Housewife Page” in  the New York Evening Journal.

“Ladies and gentlemen, er, that is ladies!” one started. The columns featured recipes alongside a healthy dash of Irwin’s humor and  caricatures of the  comedienne in the kitchen. 

The headlines were huge but not exactly gripping. “May Irwin Cooks a  Fish,” trumpets one. “May Irwin Dramatizes Potatoes” blares another.

Killian bought the cookbook titled: May Irwin’s Home Cooking, sixteen years ago for $75.  The cookbook has recipes on the right hand side of the page and  jokes and poems from Irwin’s vaudeville days on the left hand side.  Irwin, a renowned cook, was supposed to publish another cookbook in 1914. Killian believes her 1904 edition contains notes from Irwin for the second one.

Killian's sleuthing also turned up microfilm through a contact at the Library of Congress. She found in the New York Public Library, copies of Irwin’s cooking  newspaper articles, "Household Page" published in 1922.The retired  Clinton N.Y. school teacher  hopes to turn into a cookbook one day.  And she also has connected with other May Irwin memorabilia  collectors on both sides of the Canadian U.S. border.

Killian traced her cyber competitor to a library in Irwin’s hometown after years of bidding against each other for Irwin items up for  auction on eBay.  Brian Winter, archivist for the town of Whitby and public library, has been collecting  information on Irwin for decades. The Whitby Central Library features the May Irwin Collection of over 100 items including her playbills, programs and photographs.

The highest paid actress and singer in the 1890s, Irwin became an even wealthier woman by making shrewd investments in real estate in New York City, New York state and Florida. “She went from rags to riches, literally,” said Wagner.

Irwin died in New York City in 1938 at the age of 76. But she left a  long legacy in Clayton, where there are still reminders of the singer and actress today.  Killian even sells May Irwin Stoneware Collection, a line of  cookware and plates, at her shop. 

After all these years she still has unanswered questions about her larger-than-life subject.  “The puzzle pieces of her life are vast.”

Unlike the woman at the center of her collections, the soft-spoken Killian prefers to stay out of the spotlight. “It’s about May,” she  said, politely declining a request to take her photograph next to pictures of the  scene-stealing star from another era.

The curtain has long ago dropped on the region’s Gilded Age but decades after her death, May Irwin continues to get top billing.

By Kim Lunman.

Kim Lunman is a member of our TI Life team.  An award-winning Canadian journalist who lives in her hometown of Brockville,  Kim is presently writing several new feature stories for a new magazine, Island Reflections which will be distributed across the Thousand Islands, on both the Canadian and US sides of the River, in July.  She has written a number of articles for our magazine and we appreciate her enthusiasm and her ability to bring a story to life.  Kim wanted to learn more about the famous May Irwin and as she says, "I had the bonus of meeting Karen Killian and discovering how Karen has passionately collected as much memorabilia as possible - there by keeping May Irwin's memory alive for all of us to enjoy." 


Posted in: History, People
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Sandy Marrone
Comment by: Sandy Marrone ( )
Left at: 11:14 PM Wednesday, April 15, 2009
I didn't realize that May Irwin was such a dynamic woman back when "demure" was what ladies were expected to be. I collect sheet music and those that are connected to May Irwin are bold and sassy. Thanks for the great article featuring May Irwin and another sensational lady, Karen Killian!
Mark J Smith
Comment by: Mark J Smith ( )
Left at: 8:09 AM Thursday, April 16, 2009
Thank you for such a good article on May Irwin. I have a great interest in her life, as my Grand father came to the U.S.A. on two seperate occasions to work for Ms Irwin. He admired her greatly, as well as the TI area, wishing to emigrate, this never transpired.
K. Jorgensen
Comment by: K. Jorgensen ( )
Left at: 9:19 AM Thursday, April 16, 2009
Thank you ever so much for writing such an informative and well written article about May Irwin! It is wonderful to see people take such an interest in May Irwin and in our collection at the Whitby Public Library too. Readers of this article may be interested to see the photos of May Irwin that the archives at Whitby Public Library posted online at
Dr. Kathleen Golden
Comment by: Dr. Kathleen Golden ( )
Left at: 1:33 PM Thursday, April 16, 2009
Thanks for posting information on this important historical figure. Since I just completed a documentary film entitled, "Three Vaudeville Women: May Irwin, Marie Dressler, and Eva Tanguay," I thought I would post a few comments. I too feel we need to know more about May Irwin. We do, however, need to remember that she is listed in Groves Music Dictionary as the artist most associated with "coon shouting" or "coon songs." For the modern reader, these were songs, often performed in blackface (though Irwin did not), and they mostly depicted African-Americans in a less than positive light. In my film I explore this issue and it can be very difficult for the modern audience to stomach. With that said, Irwin broke ground in several ways. First, she never appeared in blackface, which was certainly not the norm in that day. She also was one of the first to bring African Americans onstage with her, which was also unheard of in that day. She developed a standup comedy style, much like that of comics today, where she talked directly to the audience.
In business, as a woman, Irwin had few equals. She worked in traditional theatre, vaudeville, and even began her own theatre company when she felt she was not getting a fair shake from theatre managers and owners. She did write a cookbook, but this was actually after she became known as a performer.
She began her career in a sister act with Flo (Adeline Flora Campbell) in Buffalo, NY. They performed together for some time and then May (Ada May Campbell) went on to New York and Flo continued in a solo act, not really ever making as big a mark and May did.
She was very savvy in business accumulating great wealth in her lifetime. She sold property in NYC in the early 1930's for over $1 million which woulld equal about $20 million today. She became popular at the dawn of mass marketing of sheet music. Like CDs today, sales of sheet music would indicate the popularity of a performer. Her music is still available today in archives across the US. I have loaded her "Frog Song" on my website at There is a great CD collection called Music from the New York Stage that has several of her songs.
She once lamented that she feared she would be remembered as the woman who sang coon songs rather than the woman who made people laugh. The latter was the height of her ambition. Hopefully these articles and interest in women like May Irwin will let us begin the conversation about how race and gender are so important to discuss in a historical context.
Dr. Kathleen Golden
Comment by: Dr. Kathleen Golden ( )
Left at: 12:59 PM Friday, April 17, 2009
Sorry, in my previous post, that is Georgina May Campbell which is the really name of May Irwin. I also wanted to mention how very helpful Karen Killian, Brian Winter, and Krista Jorgensen were in the development of my documentary. Ms. Killian has one of the largest collections on May Irwin anywhere and Brian Winter, the archivist at Whitby Public Library and his assistant Krista Jorgensen have put together a wonderful array of May Irwin's music and publications.
Sharon Ammen
Comment by: Sharon Ammen ( )
Left at: 2:11 PM Saturday, April 25, 2009
Hi everyone--so great to read Karen Killian's material again and Kathleen Golden's note! I've been re-writing and working on my never-ending "book" on May Irwin (so much else interferes!) with a wonderful editor from Illinois University Press. There's so much misinformation out there--and Karen, Brian Winter, Kathleen and so many others now gone (like the great Ragtime Bob!!) have helped me a lot over the years. If I ever get this book out--I hope it will be the first little histroical-critical volume of many, many more. She was surely an endlessly fascinating woman. I'd love to hear from anyone!
(Anyone find any of her great-great grandchildren?)
Sharon Ammen
phyllis putnam
Comment by: phyllis putnam ( )
Left at: 10:41 AM Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Hi Everyone, I don't know if this is the place to mention this, but you folks all seem to knowledgeable about May Irwin, so I am wondering if any of you are familiar with Inez Wolfe. Inez was a concert singer, who at one time had a summer home on the St. Lawrence and was a friend of Miss Irwin. I live in a house in Chaumont, owned by Miss Wolfe from 1928 to 1958. I know very little about Miss Wolfe and would like to learn more.
And on another topic, my grandparents lived and worked on the "Irwin Place," a farm, near Clayton, that they worked on shares. Would that farm have been owned by Miss Irwin, or a family member?
Rex Ennsi
Comment by: Rex Ennsi ( )
Left at: 11:41 AM Saturday, February 6, 2010
The Thousand Islands Museum in Clayton has an extensive collection of May Irwin materials including her home movies and sound recordings transfered to CD. To see or hear these items the Museum is open Tuesdays and Wednesdyas during the winter months and seven days a week in the summer. Make an apointment to see the Irwin Collection by calling Sharon Bourquin at 315-686-5794.
York Davis
Comment by: York Davis ( )
Left at: 2:18 PM Wednesday, April 7, 2010
I have been researching May Irwin online for about 3 months with a view to writing a play with music. Therefore I'd be very interested in contacting Sharon Ammen, Dr. Kathleen Golden, K. Jorgensen and Sharon Bourquin and any other interested persons for an email dialogue. My next step is to visit our National Archives, since my online sources are now almost exhausted. The Kiss was part of a program of very early Edison films among the first public film showings in the West End Park right here in Ottawa.
I have been a performer and singer inteested especially in the times of the British Music Hall and later Vaudeville. Please contact me at the the email address given and I'd be pleased to reply.
Susie Smith
Comment by: Susie Smith
Left at: 2:58 PM Wednesday, April 7, 2010
We are pleased to post the comment above, but we are unable to post the email address. If you wish to contact York David, (Ottawa, Canada) please do so by contacting TI Life thourgh our site.
York Davis
Comment by: York Davis ( )
Left at: 8:07 AM Thursday, April 15, 2010
Thanks Susan for your help and coordination on behalf of TI Life. Your excellent articleof a year ago on May Irwin and contact info. for Karen Killian and Dr. Kathleen Golden have been a valuable spur to my current research on May Irwin. I hope to meet with both authorities in May in Whitby and Clayton. I'd be glad to submit additional info. on May in a followup article should you wish? Like Dr. Golden I'd be very interested in finding information on what happened to May's two sons and any of her grandchildren, perhaps alive today?
I do like your Thousand Islands Life light-hearted, but interesting historical approach. Good work... all involved!
Brian Gonseth
Comment by: Brian Gonseth ( )
Left at: 7:00 AM Friday, April 23, 2010
I was just cleaning out my mothers house who passed away. I came across May's cookbook. Wow, to learn the history of May Irwin in your back door.
York Davis
Comment by: York Davis ( )
Left at: 11:41 AM Friday, April 23, 2010
Lucky Brian... I believe her cookbook is full of interesting "May" comments?
I would appreciate being able to contact Dr. Sharon Ammen, as I believe she may be in Clayton for a day in May. If I can arrange a meeting with her, I may be able to drive that day from Ottawa. Sharon? My research is slowly proceeding.
Richard Magito Brun
Comment by: Richard Magito Brun ( )
Left at: 11:18 PM Monday, October 25, 2010
Thank you for this informative site. I would very much like to know if there exist any pictures of May Irwin's second husbond Kurt Eisfeldt. I'm in the process of writing the story of the Eisfeldt family. Please let me know!

Richard Magito Brun
Sharon Ammen
Comment by: Sharon Ammen ( )
Left at: 7:52 PM Tuesday, October 26, 2010
I think I may have some info for you, Richard. Right now I'm running off to a few conferences, but would be glad to get in touch when I return.
York Davis
Comment by: York Davis ( )
Left at: 10:32 AM Friday, October 29, 2010
I have just finished a second draft of a 2 act play (with music) on highlights in May Irwin's life. Am now looking for an interested theatre company to workshop and develop it. If you haven't seen it already, there's a good photograph of May and Kurt, taken a few years before May's death, in the Monday October 24, 1938 edition of the Watertown Daily News. It was part of May's Obituary, published 2 days after she died of pneumonia in New York.
My copy of the Obituary (photo is a bit dark) came from either the Archives in Clayton, NY or in Whitby, ON. Hope this is of help to to you...
Richard Magito Brun
Comment by: Richard Magito Brun ( )
Left at: 4:17 PM Saturday, October 30, 2010
Hello all of you in the cyberspace of research and art!

I can't really tell all of you helping hands, I will wait and see what happens. I understand that I have found a cave of treasure carefully guarded by a holy - and perhaps secret - society of dedicated fans of May Irwin.

If I will be able to disclose some of the unknown truths in Kurt Eisfeldt's life I promise to share them with you, wise guardians.

Richard Magito Brun
descendant from the Eisfeldts of Saxony
Linda Campbell Tadler
Comment by: Linda Campbell Tadler ( )
Left at: 12:36 PM Monday, April 23, 2012
Hello everyone,
I just recently learned that May Irwin is my Great Great grandfather, Dr. Chester E Campbell's sister. So I guess she is my Great, Great Aunt? I am doing family history research and was wondering if any of you could help me out from a family history stand point. My sister looks a lot like May Irwin in some of her pictures. I think genetics are so cool.
Linda Tadler
York Davis
Comment by: York Davis ( )
Left at: 9:13 PM Monday, April 23, 2012
Hi Linda,
Just in case you need the basics on the Campbell family it is as follows: Robert E. Campbell and Sophronia Jane (Draper) Campbell were Chester and May's Scottish parents. Chester born 1852 was the eldest, followed by Franklin (1854), Albert (1856), Abagail or Adeline, Flora(1858). Adeline, Flora was May's performing sister and half or their "Irwin Sisters" act. May was born probably 1861. Robert was listed as an agent of some kind in the 1861 Canadian Census, and as a clerk in the 1871 Census, along with his oldest son Chester working in the same position. I did not know that Chester, named I believe after his uncle Chester Draper, later became a doctor. For more in-depth Campbell family info., probably best contact would be Brian Winter, Archivist at the Whitby Library. May married Frederick W. Keller in 1878 and they had 2 sons, Walter(1880) and Harry(1882). Walter I believe predeceased May (died 1938) and I saw a report that Harry died in WWII and am unsure if either had children. May married again in I believe 1907 to Kurt V. Eisfeldt. I hope some of the above has been helpful?
Sharon Ammen
Comment by: Sharon Ammen ( )
Left at: 1:10 AM Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Hello Guys--I HOPE to get back to my May Irwin book--I may have to RETIRE to do it! I do have 1880 for Walter and 1881 for Harry. Yes--Walter died young of an illness--1922 in Detroit. He had two sons--John Irwin (they all seemed to take her STAGE name!!) born 1914, and William Irwin, born 1919. Harry had no children (he was married) and he died in 1947. I believe I have both of the death dates of the grandsons--but I haven't been able to find children. (I have to get back to my research later to check everything!) I would love to find more info--the 1940 census may help us all! Good luck--I'll share news this summer, I hope!
Scott Irwin
Comment by: Scott Irwin ( )
Left at: 10:03 PM Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Thank you for the interesting article about my great grandmother. We had heard stories about May, from my father, as we were growing up, and your research just highlights the fact that she was a remarkable individual.
Comment by: Lydia ( )
Left at: 12:08 PM Tuesday, May 7, 2013
My father's good friend bought the Irwin farm in Clayton in the 1950's or 60's(?). He gave my father the bell that stood on the farm (American Bell and Foundry Co large bell). After the friend's death, his wife sold the point. I was considering contacting that owner to offer him the bell so it could stay on the property, but with several family members posting there a family member that would like it? It's in my father's garage in upstate NY.
I grew up hearing stories about May Irwin, but never really knew how influential she was until recently. Quite a woman!
Sharon Ammen
Comment by: Sharon Ammen ( )
Left at: 5:21 PM Saturday, September 14, 2013
Goodness--I haven't looked at this site in quite awhile--and I see that May's great grandson -- Scott Irwin has found his way to this site. Scott--you must be the son of John Campbell Irwin--born in 1914? I have actually finally taken early retirement and working again on my book about May Irwin for Illinois University Press. It's a bit of a scholarly book--looking at her amazing public life. I will send you a note by mail--I believe I have an address for you--and perhaps we can correspond. Hello again, everyone!
Daviid Williams
Comment by: Daviid Williams ( )
Left at: 5:51 PM Tuesday, July 29, 2014
My mother's maiden name was Irwin and we have always been told that we related to May Irwin. My mothes mom met Charles Eward Irwin at a young age, so she left home to be with him. have heard He was from NY, but not sure. Is there anyway to get imfo on Her two sons. My grandmother always told us that this was true.
Karl Koenig
Comment by: Karl Koenig
Left at: 11:19 AM Monday, September 28, 2015
Upon writing a book on baseball players in vaudeville Artie Latham did a skit including May and Flo in 1888. I have my material on May on my web site ( Karl Koenig, PhD
Shauna Jones
Comment by: Shauna Jones
Left at: 12:20 PM Wednesday, August 3, 2016
This comment is directed to Dr. Kathleen Golden: I would very much like to see your documentary "Three Vaudeville Women", but I am having some difficulty finding a copy to purchase. If this reaches you, could you advise as to where I might find a copy?

Giuseppe Lowe
Comment by: Giuseppe Lowe
Left at: 9:53 PM Tuesday, February 14, 2017
I am doing family history research and was wondering if any of you could help me out from a family history stand point.
Jim Irwin
Comment by: Jim Irwin
Left at: 9:08 AM Saturday, October 7, 2017
How did Mary acquire the name Irwin? She was born a Campbell and I have not been able to find where she was married to an Irwin. I wonder why she may have chosen Irwin as her stage name.
Karen Killian
Comment by: Karen Killian
Left at: 10:42 AM Monday, October 9, 2017
She and her sister were both given the Surname "Irwin" by the producer of the first show she and sister Flora were in. She was married twice--to a Keller and Eisenfelt--never an Irwin. She even gave her stage name to her children born in 1914 and 1919. You can purchase the "May Irwin Singing, Shouting and Shadow of Minstreley " @ amazon. com by Sharon Ammen--published in 2017. Hope this helps you out! Let me know if you want additional information

. I would be happy to try to help.